Can London's Palestine Expo help redress Israel bias?

Can London's Palestine Expo help redress Israel bias?
7 min read
07 Jul, 2017
Comment: While solidarity with Palestine becomes more mainstream, UK and international institutions still firmly favour Israel, writes Tom Charles.
The exhibition is organised by Friends of al-Aqsa [Palestine expo]

This weekend, 8th and 9th July, the Queen Elizabeth II (QE2) Centre in Central London will play host to Palestine Expo, a huge celebration of Palestinian heritage and culture.

The event is a landmark for Palestinian solidarity in the UK, but will not mask the persistence of familiar problems for the movement: A lack of political impact and the enduring ability of opponents to link Palestinian solidarity to "terrorism".


Filling the QE2 Centre will be a noteworthy success for Friends of al-Aqsa (FOA), the organisers of Palestine Expo. FOA, a non-government organisation that focuses on human rights and defence of the sacred al-Aqsa sanctuary in Jerusalem, expects 10,000 people to attend.

They have billed the expo as the "biggest social, cultural and entertainment event on Palestine in Europe… a platform to further justice and peace in Palestine." The exhibition has been planned to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a decade of the siege of Gaza.

At this historic juncture, FOA have chosen to focus on what it calls "#GenerationPalestine" - people in Europe and the United States aged between 18 and 30, shown by a YouGov poll to be twice as likely to be supportive of Palestinian rights as their compatriots from other age groups.

People in Europe and the US aged 18-30 are twice as likely to be supportive of Palestinian rights as their compatriots from other age groups

The expo has secured high profile speakers, including the journalist and film maker, John Pilger, and the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe.

Along with these expert perspectives the expo offers music, comedy, spoken word performances, activist workshops for students, photography and opportunities for shopping for Palestinian goods. Visitors will also be able to take a "virtual reality experience" to explore Palestinian history since the creation of Israel in 1948.


The past decade has seen an increase in confidence among Palestinian solidarity organisations, manifesting in bigger events and more of a focus on lobbying politicians. Public awareness of the injustices of western policy in the Middle East increased following the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of that society, with Prime Minister Tony Blair acting against the wishes of the UK public.

Posters advertising the event have popped up on London's Tube

Alternative voices, notably Al Jazeera and Russia Today, have penetrated public consciousness. 

Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-9 saw Israel carry out atrocities against a captive and defenceless population in the Gaza Strip, and was followed by similar attacks in 2012 and 2014, all taking place without Israel's close relationship with the UK incurring any cost.

These assaults further increased dismay at the Palestinians' plight, and generated new levels of solidarity in the UK, with calls for justice firmly rooted in human rights and international law.

Culturally, Palestine has moved from the fringes towards the mainstream in the UK with artists such as Banksy and Massive Attack creatively supporting Palestinian rights. In 2014, the UK parliament unilaterally voted to recognise a Palestinian state. The vote was symbolic, but was also indicative of a changing landscape.

Read more: Trump should know: Bibi won't budge

The incremental move to the mainstream for Palestine in the UK is significant as it takes place in a major European nation, one which signed Palestinian land over to the Zionist movement a century ago and has since offered unstinting political cover for Israeli colonialism.

Hard power

However, while the UK is carries significant international weight, and London is a vibrant city with a seemingly endless appetite for Middle East events and politics, the shift towards support for Palestinian rights is juxtaposed by the fact that it has had no tangible effect on the balance of power in occupied Palestine and Israel.

Familiar obstacles remain.

The current status quo suits Israel to a T. Overwhelmingly more powerful than its neighbours, Israel continues to occupy and expand, while paying almost no price.

Its security is not threatened, and it is the Palestinians who are working diligently to maintain this: The Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank coordinate with the occupation to suppress the population, and in Gaza Hamas is very efficiently keeping a lid on a potentially explosive situation.

Israel has the full support of the minority Conservative government in Westminster, backed as it is by the extremely pro-Israel DUP, and more importantly it still enjoys the patronage of the United States in the form of arms sales and political protection at the United Nations.

A situation in which the US suggests compromise and searches for a formula for peace, but does not use its considerable leverage, will not see Israel motivated to strike a peace deal. Any Israeli prime minister reaching out to the Palestinians now would face serious domestic unrest brought about by having to relocate Israeli citizens from illegal Jewish settlements, the loss of total security control and a lessening of Israel's grip over Jerusalem and its holy sites.

This imbalance in power is not something the solidarity movement is yet able to bridge.

Links to 'terrorists'

Another long-standing problem for the Palestinians is that adversaries link their advocates in the UK to terrorism and proscribed movements. While this is often done in a blatantly unfair way, it still dogs organisations such as FOA and negatively impacts their ability to get their message across.

Any potentially successful Palestine event is targeted by hostile groups

The Palestine Expo is no exception to the rule that any potentially successful Palestine event is targeted by hostile groups. The communities minister, Sajid Javid, whose department controls the QE2 centre, threatened to shut the event down, writing to FOA to express "concerns that your organisation and those connected with it have expressed public support for a proscribed organisation, namely Hamas, and that you have supported events at which Hamas and Hizballah – also proscribed – have been praised".

A group called Jewish Human Rights Watch received coverage for its claim that the Palestine Expo is a "front for Jew hate". Their provocations were eventually defeated when Javid gave the green light to the event, but links to Hamas to Hizballah are an ongoing issue, and the Palestinian rights movement is caught between denying any links and declaring their solidarity with aspects of the work of these two major resistance factions.

On this occasion, FOA said the government's threat to shut down the event amounted to unlawful meddling. Their founder, Ismail Patel responded to the threat by saying, "They have failed to provide any satisfactory reason as to why they have chosen to cancel an event which seeks to celebrate Palestinian culture and heritage."

Israel continues to occupy and expand, while paying almost no price

Hamas and Hizballah represent a social conservatism shared by many Muslims in the UK, and they represent significant constituencies in Palestine and Lebanon. Nevertheless, they still evoke shrill protestations among British politicians and media commentators.

Hope and change

But politics is changing, and President Donald Trump's unpredictability and disregard for convention, combined with his apparent interest in making history in the Middle East, could make him the commander in chief that finally utilises US power to coerce Israel in to making concessions.

Should he do this, Israel's motivation to make a deal will increase sharply.

In the UK, politics is in flux, with the 2017 Labour manifesto giving renewed potency to the language of "peace, universal rights and international law". Jeremy Corbyn could be prime minister this year and that would mean a serious shift in the power of Palestinian solidarity, from soft power to hard power in a European state with the ability to lead its neighbours in to a new vision for the Middle East.

Despite the changes in the air, as the Palestine Expo gets underway, visitors will understand that the profound change the Palestinians so desperately need has not come yet. When it does come, they might look back to the event and say it was one small step along the way to peace.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.